What is a parish?

In reflecting on Anglican congregations and their connections with their respective geographical communities, we must look at the meaning of the term “parish”.

The American Heritage Dictionary offers this definition, which I have abbreviated to the relevant portions.

  1. a. An administrative part of a diocese that has its own church in the Anglican, Roman Catholic, and some other churches.
    b.The members of such a parish; a religious community attending one church.
  2. A political subdivision of a British county, usually corresponding in boundaries to an original ecclesiastical parish.

In the traditional sense, definition 1a is the best description. It was out of the church-established parishes that the government subdivisions, of definition 2, grew. In the contemporary sense, definition 1b is the one most used in the United States. I believe it is a corruption of the traditional sense of the word which has come about because of the historic lack of an established church in the federal system of the United States (realizing, of course, that there were established churches in some states in an earlier time and in the colonial era). The open market of religious beliefs has led to a lack of demarcation of geographical areas based on religious affiliation. Though some denominations are strong in certain areas, no single religious body has maintained absolute control over communities in the same way that has existed in the English church for centuries.

The Catholic Encyclopedia offers this definition, which I have also abbreviated:

A parish is a portion of a diocese under the authority of a priest legitimately appointed to secure in virtue of his office for the faithful dwelling therein, the helps of religion. The faithful are called parishioners, the priest parochus, curate, parish priest, pastor. To form a parish there must be (1) a certain body of the faithful over whom pastoral authority is exercised; the ordinary manner of determining them is by assigning a territory subject to the exclusive jurisdiction of the parish priest.

I believe this would accord with the traditional view of the parish system in Anglicanism. Essentially, there is a geographical area, recognized by the bishop, which is led by a priest, and who ministers to those within the area. The impetus for forming a parish is the existence of a certain number of Christians who desire a parish church.

Consulting the trusty Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (third edition), I find this definition, which I have again shortened:

In England, an area under the spiritual care of a C of E clergyman …, to whose religious ministrations all its inhabitants are entitled.

Though there are many more things that could be said about the background of what we have come to know as a parish, these definitions (particularly that from the Oxford Dictionary) give us a succinct vision of what the traditional parish looks like. The parish from the English system is a territory whose residents are entitled to the spiritual care of a priest assigned to the area church. To expand this idea slightly, the ministry of the local church is not limited to those persons who attend that church’s services; instead, the local church ministers to the community at large, some of the inhabitants of which participate in the religious services of the church.

This is certainly a different idea of the parish than most Anglicans have today. Instead of viewing our ministry as being oriented to the community, we see our ministry as being oriented to those who attend Sunday services. I contend that the responsibility of ministry does not stop at the boundary of the church precincts, but that it extends to the territorial limits of the community.

This article is part 2 of 2 in the series Parish Ministry.

6 thoughts on “What is a parish?”

  1. It seems to me that the parish is the context for incarnational ministry ("preach the gospel and if necessry use words'-St.Francis ) Proclamation and incarnation go hand in hand.Relational evangelism is woefully missing from much (not all ) of the continuing Anglican church. I look forward to your continuing exploration of this paradigm.

  2. I am warming to this subject matter already, I suppose I, and my co-pastor Fr. Kirk have been practicing this concept in a way for a couple of years now.We have been holding services for needy veterans at the Baldomero Lopez State Veteran's Nursing Home every second Sunday of the month right after our own church services. We go straight there (about 5 miles away) right after our social. The Service at the Veteran's home is held at 2pm, which is most convenient for them.We usually have between 14 and 18 attending, and they have time and time again expressed their appreciation.There is of course nothing in it for the church, and we don't make it home on that Sunday untill after 4.30 or 5:00, but it is a community need (as the facility director said) which we have gladly fulfilled.It seems in these modern times that many churches of many denominations neglect the spiritual community needs of nursing homes and assisted living facilities in their own back yards simply because the man hours spent do not bring in any dividends.a sad state of affairs in my humble opinion.

  3. Fr. Jeff, I think you're right about relational evangelism. We must engage the community and the culture. From whom would you rather hear truth: from your enemy or your friend? That doesn't mean we accept sin; it does mean, generally, that people will only find their way into our pews if we have found our way into their community.

  4. Fr. Thomas, your engagement with the spiritual needs of the community is exactly where Christ has called us. Sadly, as you say, many in the church have neglected the poor, the elderly, the outcasts of society. We want what is new, exciting, and materially rewarding. We no longer affirm the dignity or spiritual value of all persons. Thank you for being a light to the world and for showing care for those who may not be able to respond in significant ways.

  5. Jack, those safeguards are important in the ministry of the church. They were previously affirmed in the church, which is why the parish system was developed, and re-affirmed in the Reformation era. Sadly, we have turned back to many of the old abuses in the church. We allow bishops to not be resident in their sees (a.k.a. non-geographical dioceses); we allow divorced men to be ordained or to remain in ministry; we promote discord and abuse of parishioners for the sake of personal kingdom building.r nIt is indeed a shame that there is such abuse and disunity in the church. This is not the pure church of our Lord. But we shouldn't lay it all at the feet of the Continuing Anglican churches. Christianity has had divisions for centuries; the divisions and abuses of our own day are not new. That does not excuse them, but it does put them in some perspective. We must continue to strive against our sinful desires of pride, selfishness, greed, envy, and all the rest. And we can only overcome by the strength of the Lord's Spirit.r nThe church must be serious about the Lord's business. Unfortunately, there are many clerics, including bishops, who are a disgrace to the name of Christ. I will discuss more about the responsibilities of the clergy in future additions to this series of articles.

  6. The parish system has built-in safeguards for protection of existing parishes that the circumstances in "continuing Anglicanism" sadly obviate. Cautionary tale:A friend of mine became the rector of a parish in another part of the country. The previous rector retired and because the continuum is so disorganized was allowed to remain resident in the parish. Less than a year went by before the "rector emeritus," after causing trouble for a few months, finally quit the parish and was actually allowed by their bishop to stay home and say Mass in his house for himself and his wife! As if that weren't bad enough, a laywoman in the parish became upset when she was not allowed to overrule the rector about Christian ed, and she set up a mission ten minutes away from the parish, with the retired rector saying Mass. All this was done with the blessing of the bishop! The only excuse for the bishop's poor judgment was that if he told that woman and the retired priest they could not do what they were doing (which was considered wicked even in the second century) "they would just go find a bishop who would be happy to take them."A similar tale comes from my own city, where a continuing church had a split led by a lay pope, formed a mission in a different continuing jurisdiction, and now is trying to steal the property of the original parish!The nonsense of competing jurisdictions must stop. People like me won't take you seriously until you get your act together. Thirty years of schisms?! Shame!

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